Despite a host of injuries and a host of recent changes, the Class 7A Lakeland Dreadnaughts proved to be a better team than the 2021 Class 8A State Football Champions.
Lakeland won 31-24 over Venice in a spring football contest Thursday at Bryant Stadium, and the win was led by Lakeland quarterback and Ridge Community transfer Zach Pleuss’ 14-for-21 for 244 yards and three touchdowns. At the other end was Daidren Zipperer, who caught the ball four times for 130 yards and two points.
Venice played the entire game to catch up after Pleuss threw a 59-yard touchdown pass at 7:33 left to Zipperer in the first quarter and Lakeland running back Don’Ares Johnson hit a 33-yard touchdown at 3:15 in the second quarter scored But the door slammed when Pleuss threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Williams to make it 21-0 with 20 seconds left in the first half.
Lakeland head coach Bill Castle, who topped a 9-2 team last year before being knocked out in the regional quarterfinals, said he would eventually feel good after the game.
“We have a good feeling about it. But it just showed us what we need to work on this summer,” Castle said. “Obviously we need to clean up any penalties we got tonight and just try to build that game and have a good summer of (of) work.”
Nevertheless, the Dreadnaughts built the first half. Pleuss threw Zipperer a 35-yard touchdown pass in a third and 7 games, leaving 3:30 in the third game to level the score at 28-7. And the final Lakeland points would come from a 26-yard field goal by Calum Maldoon with 8:42 in fourth.
At 31-7, defeat was in order, although the final score gave no indication of how the game felt.
The Indians finally came on board when quarterback Brooks Bentley caught up with Dontey Joyner on a 17-yard touchdown with a 10:32 left in the third. This brought the game to 21-7 Lakeland.
The end results for Venice were an 18-yard touchdown pass from Bentley to Keyon Sears at 4:36 in the fourth, a 20-yard field goal from Kirill Kotov with less than three minutes in the fourth, and a 20-yard touchdown -Bentley pass to Sears with 1.7 seconds in the game in a fourth and tenth game.
Bentley threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns. Sears had six catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns.
“There were some good things and some bad things,” said Venice head coach John Peacock. “…It’s going to take some time to get everything up and running and clicking the way we want it to. This is the first step of it. Children need to trust the process and have a long summer ahead of them. Lakeland is a really good football team. It’s probably one of the best football teams I’ve seen in a long time.”
Both teams were the best of the best last year. Below are three observations for each team.
Pleuss continues where he left off
Pleuss was the county’s leading passer for Ridge Community in 2020, and he showed he could continue to be one of the county’s best quarterbacks. Once he completed seven passes in a row. He sat in his pocket, relied on his mechanics, and made informed decisions under duress.
Larry Jones shows he’s one of the best
Jones, an All County linebacker, used his momentum from the weightlifting season and used his raw power early and often. The defensive enforcer made several key plays on defense, including dismissing Bentley for a 10-yard loss on first down late in the first. Jones also executed a vicious hit before recovering a fumble on a fourth and 28 games late in the third.
Huge scores Venice
Venice only scored in the third quarter but that doesn’t mean the Indians didn’t have chances in the first half. Venice drove down the field early in the second pitch and eventually matriculated the ball near the end zone, but defenseman Mike Singleton knocked out Bentley in the end zone, effectively thwarting all scoring plans.
“I thought our defense played great,” said Castle.
Venice struggled despite new arrivals
With 10 new players and five new starters on the offensive line, Bentley still managed to throw a late touchdown pass that put the Indians on a score, allowing Venice to attempt an onside kick late in the game. While not the most accurate, Bentley was able to scrabble a few plays out of the bag and flick a few passes for completions that ended in positive mileage.
“He did a great job of running the ball – tough boy – (and) he made good decisions,” Peacock said.
Sears explodes for big games
Another bright spot for the Indians was the Sears game. The smallest player on the field had a constant knack for opening up and making some stunning moves that would leave defenders in the dust. Sears had four plays of 15 yards or more, including a running play and his two touchdown catches.
A World Cup hangover for Venice
Peacock, last year’s Herald Tribute Coach of the Year, lost six All-Area players a year ago, including top quarterback Ryan Browne and top running back DJ Escort, so from the start it looked like Venice would would try to find out his identity. It seemed that the current group of players were waiting for some of last year’s contenders to come through the door. Still, Venice pushed on and didn’t give up despite being 24 behind at one point in the game.
“We’re going to get a lot better out of this game,” Peacock said.
Robert Magobet can be reached at [email protected] or at 856-905-4537. Follow him on Twitter: @RMagobet31